Thomas Hobbes and the Social Contract

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Thomas Hobbes (17th Century)

In the opinion of many scholars, Thomas Hobbes stands as one of the first great political philosophers of modern times. His cultural antecedents were the Reformation and the Renaissance, movements which, despite their differences, shared a common thread: a yearning to return to origins. The Reformation challenged established religious traditions, while the Renaissance extolled the virtues of classical philosophy. However, these movements also engendered discord, particularly concerning religious authority, leading to widespread conflict. It was an era marked by ambiguity and the absence of clear authority.

Born amidst the tumult of civil war, Hobbes's philosophical outlook was profoundly shaped by this experience. Like his contemporary, René Descartes, Hobbes sought certainty in his philosophical inquiries. He observed that human disagreements were most pronounced when they pursued what they perceived as "good." To achieve consensus, Hobbes posited, humans should focus on avoiding what is universally recognized as "bad." He argued that all humans share a fundamental fear: violent death, the ultimate evil. This profound insight formed the bedrock of his philosophical system.

The Social Contract and the State of Nature

Hobbes is renowned as the founder of the social contract theory. In contrast to prevailing views that humans are inherently social beings, Hobbes argued that humans are, by nature, solitary creatures. Society, in his view, is an artificial construct, a pact forged by individuals to escape the perils of their natural state. This radical notion challenged the traditional understanding of social hierarchy, suggesting that if humans are not naturally social, then hierarchies are inherently artificial.

To illustrate his point, Hobbes introduced the concept of the state of nature. In this hypothetical pre-societal state, individuals possess varying aptitudes: some are physically stronger, while others are intellectually superior. However, the state of nature is characterized by a precarious balance of power, where anyone has the potential to harm or even kill another. This constant threat to survival creates an atmosphere of perpetual fear and insecurity.

Within the state of nature, Hobbes argues, individuals believe they have the right to take whatever actions are necessary for self-preservation, including violence and theft. These individual rights, however, are surrendered upon entering into the social contract. They are transferred to a sovereign authority, which Hobbes identifies as the King. Thus, the social contract replaces the natural anarchy of the state of nature with an absolute monarchy.

The Sovereign and International Relations

Significantly, the King himself is not a party to the social contract. Hobbes reasoned that if the sovereign were bound by the same agreement that grants him power, his authority would be compromised. An external entity is required to oversee and enforce the terms of the contract. This innovative line of reasoning provided a compelling justification for absolute monarchy, grounding the King's authority not in divine right, but in human nature itself.

Furthermore, Hobbes argued that since modern states have not entered into a similar social contract with one another, their interactions are governed by the principles of the state of nature. This observation laid the groundwork for the realist school of international relations, which emphasizes the competitive and often conflict-ridden nature of relations between states.

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